Victorious Lithuanian basketball stories: the Olympic selection in Venezuela is marked by a winged phrase

Krepsinis.net continues the project “Victorious Lithuanian Basketball Stories”, recalling moments of triumph on the occasion of the European Championship.

After more than one scandal has already marked the European championships, we invite you to remember another controversial and happily ended tournament – the 2012 Olympic selection in Venezuela.

In South America, there was no shortage of difficult matches or sideline upsets, eventually closing with victories and a winged phrase.

Long way to the Olympics

In the optimal case, Lithuania was not even in the Olympic selection. In 2011, the home European Championship promised two direct tickets to the London Games, but an ill-fated quarter-final against North Macedonia denied them that chance.

Then in the “Žalgiris” arena, the disappointed Lithuanians were greeted by additional battles – the ticket to the Olympic selection was won by defeating Slovenia (80:77), while the Greeks were defeated in the fight for the fifth place (73:69).

FIBA also presented another glimpse – it was decided to hold the Olympic selection tournament in distant Venezuela, three weeks before the actual games in London. For the Lithuanians, this meant a whole bunch of problems, starting with difficult trips and two acclimatizations and ending with chasing top form all summer.

Three more European national teams – North Macedonia, Russia and Greece – had to work under the same conditions. The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Angola, Nigeria, Jordan, South Korea and the home team also came to the selection in Caracas.

There was also a generational change in our national team at that time, so choosing the lineup was not an easy process for Kęstučius Kemzūras. The team lacked both the experienced Lavrinovich brothers and the young Donatas Motiejūnas, and Simos Jasaitis was also absent.

The role of the leader was already firmly held by Linas Kleiza, and around him a two-fold formation was formed, with 36-year-old Šarūns Jasikevičiis leading the attacks, but after finding a place, the national team’s debutant Davidus Dulkis. Rimantas Kaukėnas, Mantas Kalnietis, Jonas Mačiulis, Martynas Pocius, Tomas Delininkaitis, Darius Songaila, Paulius Jankūnas, Robertas Javtokas and 20-year-old Jonas Valančiūnas, who exchanged a chance to complete the golden journey with the youth national team, lined up this time.

Hole qualifying tournament

The draw put them in a group with Nigeria and hosts Venezuela. The hosts then had National Basketball Association (NBA) player Greivis Vasquez in their ranks, and it was against them that they had to start the selection.

The Lithuanians justified their status as favorites and won quite confidently – 100:82. It is true that L. Kleiza needed 28 points in the match, but the achieved result was satisfactory. The Venezuelans themselves were not too sad either, having defeated the Nigerian national team 71:69 in the match the day before and preserved the opportunity to go further.

In the next match, the hosts’ plans were disrupted by the same Lithuanians. Just 18 hours after the victory against Venezuela, our team had to fight against a strong Nigerian national team. Obvious fatigue from the day-rested opponents and some miraculous shots from them led to Nigeria’s 86-80 victory. It didn’t cost the Lithuanians dearly, but the ratio of scored and missed points for the hosts closed the way to the next stage.

Then there was anger and conspiracy theories in Venezuela about the fact that the Lithuanians deliberately eliminated the hosts and this manifested itself in various ways.

The Lithuanian national team felt it in their skin even in the quarter-finals of the tournament against Puerto Rico, when the “National Anthem” was whistled. Screams from the stands did not really help the national team, but at the end of the match, they managed to hold their own against their rivals, winning 76:72. The strength of the Nigerian national team was also of little consolation to the Venezuelans – they defeated the Greeks led by Vassilis Spanoulis in the quarter-finals and deprived them of their Olympic dream.

The Lithuanians are no longer stuck at the finish line – the Dominican Republic was crushed 109:83 in the semi-finals. This was enough to travel to the Olympics, because three tickets were distributed in the selection and the final was not even played. Russia also made it to this one, and in the fight for third place, Nigeria won the last ticket.

The national team coached by K. Kemzuras extended a pleasant series – the Lithuanians went to the sixth Olympics in a row, without missing a single tournament in the history of the independent country.

The subtext of the Olympic dream

Not all the players who passed the selection had their dream of participating in the Olympics come true. R. Javtokas, who injured his ankle in Venezuela, could not continue playing, T. Delininkaitis and D. Dulkys also left the national team, they were replaced by Renaldas Seibutis, Simas Jasaitis and Antanas Kavaliauskas.

For the Olympics, the national team had to prepare again – get back in shape, adapt to the changed composition and hope for the best. In difficult conditions, it was not possible to make it to the medals – only Tunisia and Nigeria were defeated in the group, and they fell against Russia in the quarter-finals and took eighth place. The only memorable match was the challenge to the United States of America (USA) team, which was defeated honorably (94:99).

After the tournament, Š. Jasikevičius, R. Kaukėnas and D. Songaila ended their careers in the national team.

However, in 2012, the Olympic selection was remembered by many more than the Olympic tournament itself. The highlight of that summer was Linus Kunigelis’ outburst after the victory against Puerto Rico.

“On behalf of all possible basketball players, all those who are fighting here, and on behalf of the fans, I would like to say to the organizers: shut up with your broken buses and shut up with all your conspiracy theories,” the commentator poured out his emotions.

After the tournament, a lot of details came to light, how sticks were used in Lithuanian circles in Venezuela. On the way to the match, the bus broke down, the players’ uniforms disappeared, the video viewing equipment did not work during the preparation for the match, there was a lack of basic drinking water during the training sessions, and a lot of things were left behind.

Such absurdity only makes one appreciate the ability of the players to concentrate and pave the way for the country to the Olympic Games even more. The Lithuanian Olympic streak ended at seven, and only last year, when we finally failed to qualify for this prestigious tournament, we can better understand what a feat was accomplished a decade ago.

“Long break”: searches for “Ryto”, “Zalgiris” looking at the market, K. Maksvytis’ decisions, “Wolves” salaries and which player would help the national team a lot now

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